A recent House Resources committee hearing on the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project served as a reminder how prevalent a role outside environmental groups play in Alaska politics, particularly when it comes to mining projects. Perhaps nowhere else in America do environmental groups spend as much time, money and effort to insert a voice into how — or even if — we manage our own resources.
Knee-jerk opposition to resource development often ignores the needs and best interests of Alaskans. It also discounts that these projects, in this case a potential road leading to a mining district in Northwest Alaska, make huge regional economic contributions to fund education, health care and opportunity for future generations of our state.
The Red Dog Mine, one of the largest lead and zinc mines in the world, has been in operation since the 1980s. It's the only non-government tax contributor to the Northwest Arctic Borough and plays a critical role in supporting important services, especially schools. Since mining began at Red Dog over 25 years ago, more than $140 million has been provided to the borough. During that same period, over $880 million has been provided to the state and over $695 million to the federal government.
Seven hundred-fifty Northwest Arctic Borough jobs are connected to Red Dog; accounting for roughly $75 million in annual wages. In addition, over $160 million is spent annually on goods and services from Alaska-based businesses. The economic and social benefits that the Red Dog Mine has brought to the region go on and on.
Roughly 150 miles to the east of Red Dog is the mineral-rich Ambler Mining District. The topic of recent legislative hearings was the feasibility of an access road being pursued by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority. The road project is important because it would allow responsible development of mineral resources used in everything from solar panels to windmills and electric cars.
The Ambler Access Project road alone would create hundreds of local jobs during the construction phase. Once built, providing industrial-only access to known mineral deposits, mining development could account for thousands of direct jobs during mine construction and operations. The benefit to the region would be a multiple of the long-term positive benefits the Red Dog Mine has brought.
Despite the significant employment and economic benefit potential the project represents, the House Resources hearing included testimony from naysayers, arguing about the economics of the advanced-stage exploration project and challenging the return on investment of a proposed private toll road paid for with other people's money. The Wilderness Society representatives, while generally stating support for the access road itself, had a lengthy presentation disagreeing with the economic model presented by AIDEA.
AIDEA still has a lot of work to do, and they have detailed the rigorous process necessary to finalize a financing package for private investors interested in purchasing bonds to build the access road. Similarly, Trilogy Metals just finished a pre-feasibility-level study that demonstrates robust project economics, and as the Wilderness Society testified, more drilling work is needed at the potential mining projects. That work will continue this summer with recent news that the mining companies pursuing these opportunities have the funds in hand to
AIDEA and its proposed Ambler Access Project are going through the National Environmental Policy Act process to complete scoping requirements for an environmental impact statement. This includes comments from the public relative to concerns and issues that must be addressed in the permitting process. This is followed by a draft EIS; another public comment period; a final EIS; a third public comment period; and ultimately a Record of Decision. Nothing can be built before then.
The NEPA process is incredibly rigorous, incorporating local input into project design and decisionmaking, and has always resulted in a better project. At the end of the day, Alaskans should support this process to ensure that — once all the facts are made available — those who stand to be most affected by the road have a say in how it's designed and developed.
Nobody is building a road or a mine at this point, and none of the numbers is final, but Alaskans, especially residents of the region, deserve this process to play out. They deserve to hear all ideas, concerns and options for the road moving forward. What they don't deserve is to have another resource project shut down by outside special interest groups before all the facts are available and the permitting process is complete.
Jim St. George is the President of Associated General Contractors of Alaska. He is founder of STG Incorporated, an Anchorage-based construction management and services company specializing in heavy industrial construction projects in rural Alaska.
John MacKinnon is the Executive Director of AGC of Alaska, a construction trade association representing over 640 Alaska companies.
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